The Firm's most adoring believers

'British Asians are among the most loyal subjects, with none of the cynicism that is slowly unmaking the majestic edifice'
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The Independent Online

The second bouquet placed outside Buckingham palace on Sunday after the announcement of Princess Margaret's death came from a Mrs Khan and family who said simply: "Sorry for your loss." The Khans were expressing what thousands of British Asians would have wanted to say. These are among the most loyal of the Queen's subjects, with none of the cynicism which is slowly abrading and unmaking the majestic edifice that some say defines our Britishness. These citizens may not meet the demands of Mr Blunkett's tests, but few true Brits could match their sweetly innocent allegiance to the Queen and all that she stands for.

I have never met another Asian who shares my republican sentiments. What's more, whenever I say we should sell or shed the royal family I get disproportionately more letters from alarmed and offended British Asians who love the Queen, the Prince of Wales, all the gold and fuss and pomp. Many of them have pictures of royals in ornate frames among the smiling family members, gurus and pictures of Mecca painted on velvet.

During the brief but radiant period when Diana, Princess of Wales, ruled the waves, this adoration reached new heights. She was beautiful, the mother of two sons, open and vulnerable, genuinely warm towards non-white Britons and, most of all, royal. Not surprising, then, that when she died thousands of Asians turned up outside Kensington Palace to weep loudly, some hysterically, and to pray for her next life. I have to confess that during the first days after the violent death of Diana, and for the only time in my life, this republican too wept for the lovely misunderstood princess, lost too soon, too young. Afro-Caribbeans were similarly affected although on the whole, I think they are less worshipful than we are.

It's in our blood you see. Thousands of years of being ruled first by maharajahs and potentates and then forced to flatter and bend our knees to British monarchs leaves a natural tendency, which is impossibly difficult to shake off. A few months back I met the descendent of one of the Indian nawabs who had all too readily co-operated with the British in India and acted against the freedom fighters such as Gandhi and Nehru.

Not only was he unrepentant about this perfidy, but he told me that one of his own unforgettable life moments was when he met and shook the hand of Prince Charles "in his wonderful palace, the future king of England, great, I am sure like his own dear mother." I had to swallow rising acidic nausea as I shook the wet hands of this sycophantic creep, great, also like his great-great grandfather.

There are other reasons why the royals play so well in the lives of British Asians. We derive much of our poetry, wisdom, meaning and morality from Bollywood and Pakistani movies and television soap operas. These are all built around stock themes which partly reflect and partly create real life. And the Windsors are about as Bollywood as you can get.

Rich but flawed, rich but unhappy, rich but struggling, these messages are forever imbedded in the story lines of films that are watched by millions of poor people who need to feel good about themselves. This practice subverts any inclination to revolt or despise the affluent. The poor peasant or street dweller, or poor but honest worker, has to come out teaching lessons to the greedy, intolerant or godless bloke with a fleet of Mercs and children who these days wear Versace.

In the cinemas at the moment we have a wonderful blockbuster – Kabhi Khushi, Khabhi Gham (Sometimes Happy, Sometimes Sad) – in which a rich industrialist, born into the upper class, learns that money is not all. He throws out his son who loves a young woman from an ordinary background and then has to show contrition for his arrogance before he is allowed to resume the good life in his vast, kitsch, manor house.

The very things that may be turning white Britons away from the royals keep British Asians enthralled and devout. Unquestioned, inherited respect, the pressures to wear a mask in public and never reveal family secrets, and a society which then sets about trying to find out these secrets to shame the family – all this is an intrinsic part of the lives and values of Asians here and on the subcontinent.

The characters, too, are perennial in our myths, fables and lives. They steady us in this volatile world by feeding us conservative messages and comforting illusions about the primacy of duty, one of the main elements in our moral landscape. The old grandmother or great-grandmother, beyond criticism, always to be revered and protected; the dominating mother-in-law and mother who knows that she must be ruthless for the sake of the family and make them cling on to the old raft even when it is clearly out of control in fast moving waters of the new world; the eldest son, spoilt but burdened with responsibilities but also a sense of destiny; the victim daughter-in-laws who are reduced or destroyed because they do not understand or accept the rules.

But more than all of this, it is pity which draws Asians to support the royals. My mother, now in her eighties, was very upset about Princess Margaret's death because she has felt sorry for her ever since the day she signed away her love for Group Captain Townsend.

All these years, whenever she is feeling maudlin, she tells me the story of how the lovely Princess Margaret did her duty and gave herself over to a life of unhappiness. "Bechari (poor thing), the rain came down you know, when she signed. Her tears, God's tears, it was terrible. See you have money and palaces but you are not free."

For 48 hours now, broadcasters, politicians, and journalists have minedsympathy for the frustrated Princess, for her old and ever-obliging mother, for the Queen in her jubilee year, for her children and grandchildren. After each tragedy or mishap we are asked to meekly provide more of the same.

We must feel sorry for Prince Charles because he is waiting so long to be king and because he cannot parade his mistress the way he would like. We must sympathise with the Queen because her children and sister never understood what was required of them. We must extend understanding for Prince Harry when he abuses people in pubs and gets sloshed at a such a young age.

We must protect poor, handsome Prince William because so many people are interested in his life and loves. The Princess Royal, poor thing, and the Duke of Edinburgh are always misunderstood because they are so forthright. And anyway, what a tough, thankless job they all do.

When true admiration, natural veneration and awe have gone, all that is left is pity, now the main emotion that the nation feels for The Firm. Royalist Asians turn this sympathy into real attachment and this must comfort the Queen, who obviously need all the devotion she can muster. But others – even supporters – must wonder if this may do the royals greater harm than angry rejection and passionate opposition to their privileges. As Balzac observed: "Hatred is a tonic, it makes one live... but pity kills, it makes weaknesses weaker." Princess Margaret's pitiful life certainly proved that.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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